Ex-inmate in Libya tells of arrest, prison horrors

AP News
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Posted: Mar 09, 2011 5:09 PM
Ex-inmate in Libya tells of arrest, prison horrors

Fadlallah Haroun recounted how masked men grabbed him on the street, handcuffed him and threw a sack over his head, then tossed him into a waiting vehicle and sped off. Seven years later, he emerged from Moammar Gadhafi's prisons without ever being charged.

Haroun's odyssey took him from the underground cells of the Katiba jail in his hometown of Benghazi to the notorious Abu Selim prison in Tripoli, where Libyan groups outside the country said up to 1,200 prisoners were killed in 1996. Along the way, he said he endured daily beatings, mock executions and psychological terror.

"When I was in prison, I met so many people who suffered the same thing I did just for expressing their opinion," said Haroun, 45, over coffee in a sitting room lined with low green couches at a family home in Benghazi.

Now that eastern Libya has ripped itself free from Gadhafi's grip, residents finally feel safe to talk about what life was like under the regime. Their stories are stamped with the terror, paranoia and sinking sense of desperation that Gadhafi instilled in his people since taking power in a 1969 coup.

A U.S. State Department report from last year accused the Libyan government of failing to observe provisions of its own criminal code on pretrial detention and arbitrary arrest and detention. It accused security services of detaining individuals without formal charges, holding them indefinitely without court convictions, and keeping them incommunicado for unlimited periods.

For Haroun, a businessman who imported raw materials from Italy for furniture, the worst of it began on April 23, 1995, with a phone call. A voice on the line asked him to present himself at the police station in Benghazi for a few questions. The masked security service men stopped Haroun as he was getting into his car to drive to the station.

"I was surprised, I didn't have any problems, no reason to go _ I'm a businessman, not a criminal," Haroun said. "I had no political activity since I traded and traveled.

"I always came back and expressed my opinion in private with friends and family. I condemned the situation in Libya, talked about the need for reform, and explained what life was like outside," he said.

The security services told him that he was from "a trouble-making family, and accused me of harassment of the state and the system," Haroun said.

They also accused him of currying popularity with local residents by donating food to the poor during the Eid holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Such charity is a tradition throughout the Muslim world.

Haroun was taken to the internal security offices in downtown Benghazi and moved from there to the Katiba, a large security base in the suburbs. The walled facility houses low-rise whitewashed buildings, a one-story villa for Gadhafi with an elevator, a parade ground and three cavernous underground bunkers where mainly political prisoners were held.

"People who ended up in those just disappeared for good," Haroun said during a tour of the base, which was stormed and torched by protesters in a bloody battle during the early days of the uprising last month.

Haroun did not end up there. Instead, he was held in a small corner cell _ its walls etched with graffiti from previous prisoners _ in the basement of a building on the base for two weeks before being transferred to Abu Selim prison.

His family knew he had been detained _ when people disappeared in Gadhafi's Libya, it was understood the security services had them _ but they had no clue of his whereabouts or condition.

"It took my family six years to find out where I was," he said, shaking his head.

Although Haroun was out of the picture, the family was not left in peace. The security services conducted what Haroun called "psychological warfare" on them. His younger brother, Osama, was expelled from his university, where he was studying political science and economics. The whole family was banned from working and their cars were confiscated.

Security agents would routinely storm the family's Benghazi home, break down the door and arrest one of his brothers, then release him days later, Haroun said.

Haroun's 80-year-old mother, fingering prayer beads and nodding as she listened to her son recount the ordeal, said the attacks on their home became so frequent that "we eventually just left the door unlocked so they could come in and didn't have to break it down. It was just cheaper that way."

Haroun spent most of his time behind bars in Abu Selim prison, where cells were cramped and filthy, he said. In some, there was no bedding and inmates slept on the ground next to the stinking hole in the ground used as a toilet. There was just enough food to survive.

"One of the daily 'meals' was a 9 p.m. beating _ that was my meal," he said with a laugh. "Everyday at 9 p.m. That lasted for 45 days."

Besides the grueling daily grind, there were searing flashes of terror.

Haroun said he was once brought blindfolded into what his guards called a courtroom, where he was sentenced to hang. "They had me stand on a stool and placed a noose around my neck," he said, acting out in his living room how the rope was put over his head. "And then they kicked the stool out from under me. Somebody caught me as I fell."

Another time, he was taken blindfolded in front of a firing squad. The gunmen shot blanks, he said.

"These courts were psychologically brutal. Some people who went through that were mentally out of it for days, others lost their hair," he said.

Because he and many other prisoners like him were never charged or convicted, there was no set release date. The security services could hold them forever, or free them on a whim.

"Every morning we hoped to be released because we were never sentenced," he said.

His day came on Dec. 13, 2001.

The Libyan government confirmed his release from prison in 2001.

Once out, he returned home but could not earn a living; the regime had banned him and his family from working. He could not leave the country, because he was barred from traveling abroad.

As he spoke, his 3-year-old son Haidar _ one of his five children _ bounced into the room and nestled into the folds of his father's brown leather jacket. Haroun kissed the little boy on the forehead, grinned and said: "I made up for my time behind bars."

His family managed to survive with the help of a younger brother, Youssef, who fled to Britain in 1995 after Haroun disappeared. Youssef sent money from Manchester, England, to the family in Libya through secret channels.

Some of the scars that Gadhafi's regime inflicted on the family cannot be healed.

A Human Rights Watch report in 2003 cited accounts of a mass killing in Abu Selim prison in summer 1996. Libyan groups outside the country said up to 1,200 prisoners died. The government denied that any crimes took place, saying that prisoners and guards died as security personnel tried to restore order in the prison, according to Human Rights Watch.

One of those who died at the prison was Haroun's brother, Ali, a former army major.

Another brother, Jomaa, resigned from the external intelligence agency to protest the regime's policies. He was run over by a car and killed while sitting curbside at a Cairo cafe. Haroun said there was no investigation, and the family believes he was targeted by the regime.

After the uprising began in Benghazi on Feb. 15, the protesters stormed the internal security offices in the city. A friend soon telephoned Haroun and said he'd recovered his security file from the ransacked offices.

The thick cardboard binder with the number 257 written in black ink on the spine now is in Haroun's hands. He flipped through the pages _ the surveillance orders, the prison mug shots, the informant reports _ and closed it.

Those days of torment, Haroun hopes, are over.